portion of the artwork for Kevin Catalano's fiction

The Ballad of Guerry Johns
Kevin Catalano

John Henry went to the section boss,
Says the section boss what kin you do?
Says I can line a track, I kin histe a jack,
I kin pick and shovel too,
I kin pick and shovel too.

I.

The night Guerry Johns was born, double forks of lightning knifed the skies over northern New Jersey, and the Passaic River momentarily shifted directions. But nobody would notice. The latest development in the news distracted, this time a dirty bomb gone off in a New York City subway, fifty people dead.

When the doctor held newborn Guerry up, glistening and squirmy, Mama Johns and the nurses gasped at the double-size of his arms and hands, thick and strong like an adult dwarf’s. Later, the doctor came into Mama Johns’ room with an X-ray. He explained, with one ear on the news calling from the mounted TV, that Guerry was born with two sets of bones and muscles in each arm and each hand. The humerus, radius and ulna stacked one on top of the other; double sets of carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges.

“Never seen or heard anything like it,” the doctor spoke at the TV. He sighed, then said with forced interest to Mama Johns, “You won’t have more children. He did a number on your uterus with those arms.”

“Those hammers gonna be the death of me,” she slurred for the painkillers. Then she looked at the shaky, televised images of smoke and police, “How this world gonna take my boy?”

* * *

Guerry graduated from high school, and Mama Johns took him out to an Italian restaurant to celebrate. When their meals came, she said, “Got to go out and find some work.”

As Guerry cut into his veal osso buco, the plate beneath snapped in two and his collar-shirt ripped at the shoulders. He threw down his silverware.

“Mama, there’s nothing I can do with these impediments.”

“You got arms like sledgehammers. Got to be some use for you somewhere.” Mama stuffed a meatball into her mouth, then said around it. “Good ol’ fashion gruntwork is what you need.”

Next morning, Mama Johns pinned a list of employers on the sleeve of Guerry’s sweatshirt. He got on the bus, knocking dents into handrails on his way to a seat. First stop was an unloading dock way out in Bayonne where, last night, Mama spoke of dockhands loading and unloading cargo. Guerry visited the manager in his office, a man with a clean white shirt and tie, who marveled at Guerry’s arms. He then walked Guerry out onto the dock and pointed to the cranes and mechanical arms hauling large crates in and out of ships. “Have any experience operating those?” the manager asked. “No sir,” Guerry said, and the manager shrugged and returned to his office.

Instead of finding big men swinging hammers at the Watchung quarry, as Mama Johns promised, Guerry found similar machinery working the rock. The nearby lumber yard imported its logs rather than hiring men to chop trees, and a giant, computerized saw shaped the wood. He trekked out to the Morristown and Erie railroad, and when Guerry asked if there was a need for a man to drive railroad spikes, the manager doubled-over in laughter. A few contractors might have hired Guerry at the various construction sites, if it hadn’t been for the long line of men and women looking for work. They were all more skilled with nail guns and jigsaws.

“Got to get you on disability,” Mama Johns said that night in the living room as they watched the news. “No one can deny those arms gettin’ in your way of a salary.”

Mama filled out the paperwork for Guerry. The day his disability came through, she fixed a nice dinner of fried porkchops, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn on the cob. She took a twenty from her sock and gave it to Guerry to pick up some cold beers down the road. They both got tipsy during the meal as she told stories of growing up in North Carolina.

Mama Johns stumbled on the stairs trying to go up to bed. Guerry carried her to her room.

* * *

Guerry didn’t smell coffee when he woke in the morning, or hear Mama’s slippers shuffling the tile floor of the kitchen. He called for her, then went into her bedroom. She was wheezing, chest bounding for breaths, and a grimace cut her face in half. “I’m dying boy,” she whispered as Guerry neared. “Those hammers, Lord those hammers.”

Guerry whined, grabbed up Mama’s hands in his and cried into her bosom. The birdy bones of her hands snapped at his grip.

“Guerry boy,” she told, “you gotta let your mama go.”

“No ma’am,” he said. His tears iced his knuckles. Mama’s hands continued to crunch in his.

“Son,” Mama whispered, “got to let me go.”

A violent tremble rattled Guerry and he whined, hardly able to speak. “What’s the point of these hands, Mama?”

“Holdin’ on to me ain’t it.” She lifted her head an inch. “Now mind your mama and do as you’re told.”

He loosed his grip, and the room, the house was suddenly empty.


II.

Guerry carried his bed down into the basement. He also brought the refrigerator, couch, and TV, and did his living in the dark dampness. The disability checks came in, and the house, of course, was willed to him. He soon discovered Chinese and Italian delivery, and took to drinking beers while watching reality programs and the incessant updates of war.

On these basement nights, a couple beers in him, Guerry’s big hands would itch and ache. He held them up to his face, fisted and unfisted them slowly. He listened to his superfluous bones creak like rusty door hinges. When he woke mornings he found chunks of the cement wall crumbled on the blankets, fist-sized imprints the culprit.

One morning, Mama calling brought Guerry out of the basement and up to the second floor to her bedroom. The sun coming through the window reflected the clouds of dust. He went into her closet and pulled out an armful of her clothes, hugging and sniffing, soaking them with snot and tears. While doing this, he looked out the window and noticed in the yard next door, an old white man digging out a rectangular plot in the backyard. Despite his age, he worked the shovel hard; rings of sweat darkened his back and under his thin arms. The man worked ceaselessly, but with slow progress. The man’s wife came out with a glass of ice water. He drank it, and put the perspiring glass to his face and neck. The man worked for another half-hour, then went inside. Guerry remained at the window, staring at the black plot of upturned earth.

Guerry paced the basement that evening, flexing his hands, waiting for late night to come. His heart fluttered like night-before-Christmas. When it was well past midnight, he climbed the stairs and went out the backdoor into the night. Crickets and the faraway turnpike were the only sounds in the neighborhood. He moved carefully across the backyard, squeezed through the hedges, and stood in the quiet space of the neighbor’s lawn, looking at the unfinished garden. His shoulders twitched down to his fingers. He crouched, crawled on all fours to the soil, and put his hands in the cool, damp dirt. He inhaled the rich smell, sucked his lip to keep from drooling. His hands on their own had already begun to work. They knew how to shape themselves into shovels and dig deep. He began minding the noise, but once his body tasted the work he couldn’t contain himself. He dug faster and harder, clearing a larger plot than the old man had marked.

A light from the house froze Guerry in his hunched-over pose. The old man said something to his wife, and then his silhouette broke the yellow square. Guerry scrambled off the lawn, through the hedges, and back into his house. He was frightened, but exhilarated. His body stank with sweat, hands nicked with cuts, arms and chest caked with dirt.

Guerry revisited the neighbor’s yard the next night. This time he used his thick hands as spades, and simply drew a clean line in the earth with its heel. He had watched the old man toss aside the chunks of grass, so Guerry did the same. But once again, Guerry was interrupted by a light from the upstairs window. On the third night, Guerry didn’t have a chance to begin. “Who are you?” he heard from the shadows of the back porch, then saw the figure of the old man. Guerry was too terrified to move.

“You’re in no trouble,” the old man continued, “unless of course you’re up to no good, and then I have a gun and I’ll use it, by God.”

The old man was pointing something at him.

Guerry found words and choked them out. “I don’t mean any trouble. I was just …” Guerry finally discovered he didn’t know what he was doing. He had never attempted to articulate it. “I just wanted to work.” It was as close to the truth as he could get.

A light came on and the old man stepped forward. The gun he claimed to have was an unhinged stapler.

“Don?” the old woman said from inside the house.

“It’s OK, Cindy,” he called over his shoulder. “You can go on back to bed.”

Guerry was still crouched, motionless.

“Come on up here, into the light.”

The old man was holding out his hand for a shake.

“My hands,” Guerry tried to explain.

“Jesus Mary and Jo, looky the size of those things.” He wasn’t mocking. The old man still took his hand, and Guerry was as gentle as he could be. “You must be Miss Johns’ boy. Sure sorry for the loss.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m Donald. Good to know you.” The old man’s kindness warmed Guerry in the cool night. “I want to thank you for your help, Guerry. But please quit coming in the middle of the night and scaring the bejeezus out of my wife.”

“Sorry.”

“How ’bout you come by tomorrow morning. You and I can work the garden together. It’ll be nice to have some company.”

They shook hands again, and again the old man marveled at Guerry’s enormity.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” the old man said. “I heard talk of your arms, seen you around, but I’ve never seen’m up close.”

“S’OK.”

* * *

The two men worked side-by-side in the crisp, spring morning. Guerry dug around the earth for rocks and flung them into the wheelbarrow while Mr. Don worked the hoe. They found a rhythm, grunting and tossing and chopping and maneuvering around each other. When they got to the thick roots of a large nearby Maple, Guerry took hold, dug his sneakers in, and yanked with his entire body. The massive tree trembled. “Whoa, Guerry!” Mr. Don said. “We don’t want to go about it that way.”

Miss Cindy came out with drinks, and the two men sat on the back porch admiring their work. Guerry kept the tools nearby to caress their worn, wood handles.

“Those’re good tools,” Mr. Don said. “Belonged to my father, close to 100 years old.”

Guerry gripped their handles in each hand, nodding.

“He was a farmer round here, grew tomatoes all his life. I tried to keep it going for a while, but this is no era for farming.” He sighed. “No, I had to find me a shirt-and-tie job. But this is where I feel at home, right here.” Mr. Don put his hand on Guerry’s bulging shoulder. “The world don’t need strength these days … it’s just a bunch of people sitting on their asses working at computers.” He spit and rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know, Guerry. I don’t know about where we’re headed, if it’s the natural progression of things or the path to destruction.”

Guerry rubbed his hair, the old man’s words bright as stars. A squadron of fighter jets roared overhead, slashing the sky with a rattling scream.

“But we got this backyard here,” Mr. Don said, perked.

* * *

Mid-October, Guerry and Mr. Don were bundled up and reshingling the roof. From that height, the autumnal sunlit trees resembled clouds of fire. Many in the neighborhood had their fireplaces going, and from the rooftop they could smell it and they talked about the smell.

“Tonight we’ll get the fireplace going, Guerry. Nothing better than a roaring fire on a cold night. In fact, we might could clean this out later today.” Mr. Don stood up to inspect the chimney and his feet fumbled. At first he had regained his footing and smiled at Guerry, saying “That was close.” Then his face deadened, and he snatched his chest, and Guerry thought he’d been shot by a sniper. His legs wobbled and before Guerry could even move, Mr. Don was off the roof.

All afternoon, Guerry sat on the house, looking at the smoke coming from the chimneys and the fiery leaves. His memory was stained with the sounds of Mr. Don’s body smacking on the rebuilt porch, Miss Cindy’s yelping, hiccupping calls, and sirens. Guerry could not remove himself from the roof, not even when the sky faded from blue to purple to black, then sparkled stars.


III.

Miss Cindy knocked at the front door. She had been doing it all week, but Guerry wasn’t going to answer. Moving trucks and family coming by told she was moving. She couldn’t stay in the house without Mr. Don there. Guerry understood that. Miss Cindy hollered at the front door, her words trickling down into his hole: “I’m leaving the tool shed and all of Donald’s tools. I don’t want them. Take them, Guerry. Put them to use. Quit hiding in that house, you did nothing wrong.”

Guerry went next door that night, the old folks’ house quiet as death. He lifted the tool shed clean off the ground and carried it on his back into his yard. He took a hatchet and a rawhide hammer down into the basement and slept with them in bed, dreaming of the project he had planned for his own yard the next day.

Snow fell all that night; the slits of the basement windows were cotton-stuffed with it. Outside, a foot covered the ground. Guerry stuck his arm down in the snow to feel out the earth. It was frozen solid. This wasn’t weather for work, and the next few days Guerry paced the basement like a wild animal, seething and spitting, his arms screaming. The cement walls showcased fist-sized depressions. Tears sprayed from his eyes and he bounced around the basement. Roaring and cussing and flailing, a snap happened in his chest. He bounded for the wall and let loose a barrage of punches. Flakes then hunks of cement flurried at the fantastic speed of his jackhammer arms, and he didn’t quit until his fists landed in soft, steamy dirt. The world stopped spinning and Guerry paused to examine the destruction: a cross-section of earth—worms and roots and vermin-tunnels veining through the black soil.

He reached out and sunk his hands in and scooped dirt onto his feet. A smile pulled his lips. He dragged out a hefty mound, then another, until there was space enough for him. Guerry crawled into the earth, shaped his hands like shovels, and began to tunnel with the ease of a swimmer cutting water. The soil was cold on his numbing fingertips, the rich coffee-and-metal aroma intense. Grit got into his mouth and eyeballs; pebbles penetrated his ears; clay like cold oatmeal slithered down his shirt and pants. These did not slow him. As he tunneled, he felt the pressure of the earth on his shoulders, not squeezing but vibrating. It was alive—the earth had a pulse, or it was his throbbing heart quivering the ground.

Tunneling under the neighborhood he came across water pipes and septic tanks and the cement walls of basements, around or under which he maneuvered. He knew he was moving out of the residential area when his earth-cutting hands collided with animal bones and, maybe, yes, an entire human skeleton. Then he encountered an underground museum of artifacts: pottery, mason jars, kettles and skillets; then arrowheads, musket balls, rifles, and knives. When he came to the tools, the earth quivered his excitement. Unsure of their names, he found a stash of items that married iron and wood. Pieces big and small with clamps and rings and joints and swivels. Guerry excavated an armful and shimmied homeward, the tools clattering along the way. After nearly an hour, his lungs burning for real air, he saw the orange light of the basement. He crawled out the hole, and the artifacts clamored on the cement floor. Guerry sucked at the air, looked down at his hands and body coated with dirt.

Guerry took the tools with him into the shower. Once cleaned, the equipments’ functions remained mysterious, but their parts—leavers, clamps, and blades—seemed familiar. Like Mr. Don’s tools, Guerry simply liked the feel of these instruments in his hands.

That night Guerry bundled up against the icy draft. He stared into the gaping hole, saw into it the natives and pioneers, the soldiers and farmers. These ghosts that the earth seemed to inhale and exhale like smoke.

* * *

Guerry tunneled into a different direction. Perhaps he had burrowed deeper than yesterday, or ventured into denser ground, but his lungs burned for lack of air. At first, he kept backtracking to catch his breath, but found he was making no progress. So he decided to tunnel a diagonal route up to the surface to get a drink of air, careful not to crash through someone’s floorboards. After a few days of tunneling, he became strategic with these airholes, pocking the surface every hundred yards in each direction, always mindful of where he poked his head.

He had holes furtively placed near the dumpsters of banks and at the edge of parking lots of corporations. Sometimes, when Guerry would ascend to get a sip of air, he would take a break from his tunneling to watch the shirt-and-tie people as they went in or came out of office buildings. Some seemed born for the job, marching to and from their cars, talking emphatically at devices attached to their ears. Others moved slowly, clumsily, their briefcases or cell phones as incongruous to them as a dog wearing a sweater.

* * *

Guerry spent his non-burrowing time cleaning and restoring the found objects using oils and rags from Mr. Don’s shed. His basement became a museum of tools, some of which he could name. Of the smaller category: hammers, spades, hoes, shovels, pick-axes; the larger, the ones that took longer to wrench free from the earth and drag back to the basement: steel plows, harnesses, scythes, wagon wheels. Guerry encountered a few objects deep in the stuffy trenches of the world that came with a shivery, nightmarish vibe. A whip, a bit, rusty chains and shackles. They jolted Guerry when touched, and he left them buried and scurried from their curse.

To organize all of these relics, Guerry built shelves into the walls, transforming the basement into an extension of Mr. Don’s shed. He organized the tools by their function, calling on Mr. Don’s method for help. The carpentry tools were on one shelf, the garden ones on another, and the very large things leaned on the walls. His bed was relegated to the center of the basement. He left the TV on so he could listen for it while underground to make his way back home, and also for background noise while polishing tools. The news was the only thing broadcast anymore. The President was shot in the kneecap; Iran had a nuclear bomb, it was confirmed; the stock market crashed, again.

It was the local news, however, that caused Guerry to quit flaking rust from a scythe and watch. A news helicopter captured an aerial shot of a nearby town that Guerry recognized as a place he often poked his head for air. Frighteningly unrecognizable, however was the gaping depression in the ground, like a sunken cake. The Stop ’n Shop and liquor store, homes and office buildings were all angling precariously. A portion of the nearby highway was closed off since the bridges were cracking. The frenzied newscaster said people were urged to evacuate the town, that nobody was hurt, but that buildings and infrastructure could collapse at any moment. Nobody knew what was going on.

Guerry spent the rest of the evening blocking up the tunnel that led out his basement, then attempting to patch up his wall. The snow had turned to rain. Spring was coming, the earth was thawing. In his mind Guerry mapped out the maze he had tunneled underground, and it was a webby, intricate one. Of course the ground would collapse. He paced the floor, dizzy with embarrassment and regret, apologizing aloud to Mama and the world. Then he sat down and followed further developments through his thick fingers.

* * *

The helicopter views revealed the cinematic carnage. Every day the sinking earth swallowed another town. The cities began crumbling, rendered to heaps of glass and cement. The cameras often aimed at the periphery of the destruction, where a cliff-like wall nearly a quarter-mile high dramatized the sunken ground. Luckily, the sinking happened gradually enough to evacuate people. Helicopters from all over the country swooped in on New Jersey to carry people to higher ground. Miraculously, no one was killed, though some were injured. There were interviews of the rescued wrapped in blankets, dusty and wide-eyed, attempting to offer insightful explanation, coming up speechless. By May, the coverage showed a gutted, overturned region extending for almost a fifty-mile radius of Guerry’s home. It looked as though a giant glacier had scoured the earth.

They were saying it was the work of terrorists who, the FBI theorized, had planted little bombs deep underground. Others, expert geologists, argued for previously unknown tectonics gone berserk. Religious leaders said get your soul right with God, this is the beginning of the end. Celebrities were planning a benefit to raise money for the thousands of displaced. The government promised tax breaks, asked for patience in finding jobs and homes in this economy. For now, the sunken region of New Jersey was deemed uninhabitable—there were no plans or money to rebuild. No time or manpower.

The final images of this news story, before coverage of the War took over once more, were of those who refused to leave the area. The helicopter cameras zoomed in on tiny figures scavenging the rubble; pockets of people gathered here and there, small fires marking their settlements.


IV.

The tribes of settlers had gotten word from various other lone scavengers who claimed to have seen him. Two months had gone by since the Great Collapse, and every crumbled home and grocery store had been picked clean. They needed to find other means of survival, though no one wanted to return to civilization. That much they knew. Old and young, men and women, black, white, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, this multitude of a hundred wore the costumes of their former selves—teachers, bankers, construction workers, landscapers, squatters—though these clothes, now tattered and soiled, had become uniform. Needing food and purpose, the tribes banded together to seek him out.

After two days of searching, they climbed the rubble of a shopping mall on the crest of a summit for vantage. There he is! Below, a man was blasting the remains of a cement abutment with a sledgehammer, leveling the formidable structure in three astounding blows. They could almost hear his hammer’s whistle as it cut the air. A force of tireless, machine-like movement, he hoisted the massive chunks of cement and hurled them into a pile. He had cleared a plot of land the size of a football field—dark, moist soil with deep clean rows running longwise. What they said about his arms was true.

Giddy, the group waved and called to him. He shielded the sun with his enormous hand, and waved back. They made their way down the summit chattering and chuckling. He was just a young man, quiet but friendly. His name was Guerry Johns. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, but ’course you can help. There’s a mess of tools, he said, pointing to a shed and an adjoining structure that resembled a displaced basement. The people went eagerly to the shelves where everything was organized. They took up the tools that called to them, squeezed their handles, quizzed their weight. Then, eagerly, they sought out the job that matched their instrument. Alongside Guerry Johns, they began to cut, clear, plant, and rebuild.


Kevin Catalano’s Comments

Guerry Johns is a modern-day John Henry, as is obvious from the opening lyrics from one of the many folk versions of “The Ballad of John Henry,” I was working with the premise of how strength would be an “impediment” (as Guerry would put it) in today’s technological world; however, I didn’t expect where Guerry would take the story: digging underground, transforming the land into a place where he’d be of use once again, creating a home for others who don’t fit in. This is the exciting part of writing for me, how the characters can take over and finish the story on their own. I’m grateful to Guerry for doing this for me, and I’m happy to know that he’s found his place in the world.

For those interested, here is the version of “The Ballad of John Henry”
that I reference in the story.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 43 | Spring 2014